The White House Hanukkah Party is an annual reception held at the White House and hosted by the U.S. President and First Lady to recognize and celebrate the Jewish festival of Hanukkah. The tradition was established in 2001, during the administration of George W. Bush. The guest list includes hundreds of American Jewish politicians, organization heads, and school and yeshiva deans. Here are President Obama’s opening remarks at this year’s party which took place on Dec. 17, 2014:
At the same event, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl said the following words: “Our founding fathers aspired to build a country that was truly a place of religious freedom and equal opportunity for all people. But I have to predict that they could not have imagined that in 2014 there would be a Female Asian-American Rabbi lighting the menorah at the White House for an African-American president…”
For centuries, the lights of the Hanukkah menorah have inspired hope and courage. They may have also been responsible for inspiring then-General George Washington to forge on when everything looked bleak when his cold and hungry Continental Army camped at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777/8. The story is told that Washington was walking among his troops when he saw one soldier sitting apart from the others, huddled over what looked like two tiny flames. Washington approached the soldier and asked him what he was doing. The soldier explained that he was a Jew and he had lit the candles to celebrate Hanukkah, the festival commemorating the miraculous victory of his people so many centuries ago over the tyranny of a much better equipped and more powerful enemy who had sought to deny them their freedom. The soldier then expressed his confidence that just as, with the help of God, the Jews of ancient times were ultimately victorious, so too would they be victorious in their just cause for freedom. Washington thanked the soldier and walked back to where the rest of the troops camped, warmed by the inspiration of those little flames and the knowledge that miracles are possible.
The historical source for the above story is a second-hand account, but is nonetheless fairly credible. In December, 1778, General George Washington had supper at the home of Michael Hart, a Jewish merchant in Easton, Pennsylvania. It was during the Hanukkah celebration, and Hart began to explain the customs of the holiday to his guest. Washington replied that he already knew about Hanukkah. He told Hart and his family of meeting the Jewish soldier at Valley Forge the previous year. (According to Washington, the soldier was a Polish immigrant who said he had fled his homeland because he could not practice his faith under the Prussian government there.) Hart’s daughter Louisa wrote the story down in her diary.
The story has been quoted by several Jewish historians, including Rabbi I. Harold Sharfman in his 1977 book, Jews on the Frontier.
In recent years, a letter has surfaced which claims to have been written by the Jewish soldier himself. The letter is probably not real, but it does convey the story in an emotional and inspiring way. Here is the text of the letter:
It is Hanukkah in the year of 1776. The winter is hard and the cold is fearsome. We are starving for bread. We have no clothes to warm our bodies and no shoes for our feet. At these moments, I am reminded of my father in Poland. I recall how much he suffered at the hands of the cruel Baron. I remember I was but a youngster and saw my father dance before the Baron. How terrible was the sight. My father was made to dress up in the skin of a white bear and he danced for the sport of the Baron and his guests. How great is my pain and shame. Father dances as a bear and the Baron jests and revels. I affirm in my heart that I will never be so humiliated myself. At my first opportunity, I set sail to America.
It is now the first night of Hanukkah. This very night, two years ago, I fled from my father’s home in Poland. My father gave me a Hanukkah menorah and said, “When you will light, my son, these candles for Hanukkah, they will illuminate the path for you.” From that day on, my menorah was as an amulet. Wherever I go, I take it with me.
Suddenly, I feel a soft, tender hand upon my head. I lift my eyes, and behold it is him, in all his majesty, General George Washington standing upon me. He asks me, “Why soldier do you cry? Is it then so very cold?”
I forgot at that moment that I am a soldier in the presence of my superior, and spoke before him as a child to a parent. “My master the General,” I said. “I cry and pray for your victory. I am certain with the help of God, we shall prevail. Today, the enemy is strong; tomorrow they will surely fall, for justice is with us. We seek to be free in this land; we desire to build a country for all who flee from oppression and suffer abroad. The Barons will not rule here. The enemy will falter and you will succeed.”
The General shook my hand. “Thank you, soldier,” he said, and sat at my side next to the menorah. “What is this?” asked the General. I told him I brought it from my parent’s home. Jews the world-over light this menorah to celebrate the great miracle of Hanukkah and the miraculous salvation of the Jews. The light of the Hanukkah menorah danced in the eyes of General Washington as he called forth in joy, “You are a Jew from the children of prophets and you declared that we shall prevail.” “Yes my master,” I answered with confidence. We will be victorious as the Maccabees of old, for our own sake and the sake of all who follow us to build a new land and a new life.
The General got up; his face was ablaze. He shook my hand and disappeared into the darkness. My faith was rewarded, victory was achieved, and peace reigned in the land. My General became the leader of our new country, and I became one of its citizens.
I quickly forgot those frightful days and nights at Valley Forge. However, that first night of Hanukkah, with General Washington, I carried in my heart always as a precious dream. The first night of Hanukkah the following year of 1777, I was sitting in my house in New York on Broome Street, with the Hanukkah light in my window. Suddenly, I heard a knock on the door. I opened the door, and incredibly, my General, George Washington is standing in the doorway. “Behold, the wondrous flame, the flame of hope of all Jewry,” he called forth in joy as he gazed upon its light.
The General placed his hand upon my shoulder and said, “This light and your beautiful words lit a flame in my heart that night. Surely, you and your comrades will receive due recognition for all of your valor at Valley Forge. But this night, accept from me, this medallion.” He hung the medallion of gold upon my chest and shook my hand. Tears came to my eyes; I couldn’t say a word. The General shook my hand once again and left the house. I stirred as if coming from a beautiful dream. I then looked upon my medallion and saw a beautiful engraving of a Hanukkah menorah with the first candle lit. Below was written, “As an expression of gratitude for the candle of your menorah.”
Several articles claim that this medallion is part of the permanent collection in the Jewish Museum in New York. I have yet to verify this myself.
Robert John Aumann (Hebrew name: ישראל אומן, Yisrael Aumann; born June 8, 1930) is an Israeli-American mathematician and a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences. He is a professor at the Center for the Study of Rationality in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. He also holds a visiting position at Stony Brook University and is one of the founding members of the Stony Brook Center for Game Theory. His website is here.
Prof. Aumann received Nobel Prize in Economics in 2005 for his work on conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis. He shared the prize with Thomas Schelling. You can find his complete Nobel lecture on the incentives which lead nations to War and Peace here.
In the following series of video lectures, Aumann makes some very interesting connections between the Talmud and modern economic theory. Prof. Aumann’s original slides from the lecture are available here.
Fixing the World: Exorbitant Ransom
The first topic is related to Prof. Aumann’s prize-winning research in the area of incentives in game-theory. Game-theory is a study of strategic decision making. Specifically, it is “the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers”.
Rational decision makers in game-theory prefer outcomes that maximize their gain (or minimize their loss). A person’s behavior is considered rational if his actions are in his best interests, given his information. This doesn’t mean that there is no place for altruistic motives, but we would still like to avoid negative incentives which discourage people from “doing the right thing”.
At 7:10 minutes in the video, prof. Aumann explains that in the Talmud “Tikkun Olam” (תיקון עולם), which literally means “Fixing the world”, always refers to a law (Halacha) which needs to be amended because it empirically creates negative incentives. Even though the law was intended to have a positive effect on society, the negative incentives it creates result in a negative outcome for society: people find it difficult to “do the right thing”, or are incentivized to “do the wrong thing”.
Aumann mentions Gittin Chapter 4, which has several examples of this principle. One example deals with paying exorbitant ransoms for captives:
“No more money must be paid for the redemption of captives than what they are really worth, due to tikkun olam.”
As Aumann explains, paying exorbitant ransoms creates a negative incentive. Although redemption of captives (פדיון שבויים) was meant to be a humanitarian law, in reality it was found that paying exorbitant ransoms creates incentives for criminals to kidnap. We see this in modern times when Israel’s willingness to free 1,000 prisoners for Gilad Shalit has created an incentive for Hamas to try and kidnap more Israeli soldiers. This is what Aumann means by negative incentives, and removing such incentives is what the Talmud means by “Tikkun Olam”.
Aumann even brings a reference from Maimonides which explicitly states that “Prisoners should not be redeemed for unreasonably high ransoms, so that enemies should not pursue people to kidnap them.” (Maimonides, Codex, Laws of Charity, Chapter 8, Section 12).
Fixing the World: Prozbul
In the next segment, Prof. Aumann continues an example from Part 1 about modern day Vietnam, and then explains topic of Prozbul.
The Torah mandates a Sabbatical year, known as Shmita, every seventh year, which, among other things, cancels all debts. This is one of the many laws in the Torah meant to protect the poor and disadvantaged, affording them a chance to escape from eternal debt. But, Aumann explains, when applied in practice, the law created an unforeseen negative incentive: lenders stopped lending as the 7th year approached, because they did not want to lose their money. This had a negative effect on the economy and on the poor, and so Hillel found a way to effectively cancel the law by assigning the debt to someone else for a year and reinstating it thereafter.
Price Control and Competition
At 3:45 minutes, Aumann starts his second example: price control and competition. He starts by quoting the biblical source (Deutoronomy 25):
The Talmudic discussion on this topic takes place in Bava Batra 89:
The sage Shmuel tells his assistant named Karna (literally: Horn) to appoint supervisors to oversee the fairness of scales and measures in the marketplace but not to oversee the fairness of prices. Karna disobeys him and proceeds to enforce “fair” prices, and Shmuel curses him that he may grow a horn between his eyes (hence the playful name “unicorn” for this topic in Aumann’s slides).
Aumann claims that the Talmud was in favor of government regulation of scales and measures, but against centralized price controls. In other words: create incentives to keep the merchants honest, but don’t create incentives for fixing prices, because the free market already has the right incentives built-in: competition. The argument continues in part 3:
Aumann gives the commentary of the Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson, who replaced his commentary when he died in the middle of Bava Batra) which states that if one person sells for an exorbitantly high price, then there is an incentive for someone else to sell at a lower price, and the buyers have an incentive to buy from that person, which will force the first seller to lower his prices as well. Here is a hebrew script of the commentary:
Aumann’s translation is as follows:
At 4:00 minutes, Aumann makes the point that while you may argue that the economics of free market prices are only implicitly favored in the Talmud, you cannot deny that the idea that the market will “self-regulate” its prices is stated very explicitly in the Rashbam commentary (which dates back to the 12th century). This concept of the “invisible hand” that guides the market to fair pricing is usually credited to Adam Smith in his 18th century classic The Wealth Of Nations.
Moral Hazard (Ten Stores)
At 7:20 minutes, Aumann starts his next example: moral hazard. He brings a famous story which is repeated multiple times in the Talmud. This excerpt is from Ketubot 15:
In English: “There are 10 stores, all selling kosher meat, except one, which is selling non-kosher meat. If a man buys from one, but doesn’t remember which one, then due to the doubt, the meat is forbidden; but if he found the meat, we go by the majority.”
In the 4th segment, prof. Aumann explains this case using the modern concept of moral hazard. A risky situation is said to be fraught with “moral hazard” if the outcome is determined (or may be affected) by the actions of an interested party.
The example Aumann gives to illustrate “moral hazard” is this: a person wants to buy insurance for his house which is worth $500K. He pays the premium, and then offers the insurance company to buy two policies, each for $500K. Any rational insurance company would have to refuse. Why? Because it’s a “moral hazard”: the person would then have an incentive to burn down his house, because the payoff from insurance is higher than the payoff from selling. This gets back to Aumann’s idea that real-life decisions are influenced by positive and negative incentives: “moral hazard” can occur whenever your own actions influence the probability that an adverse event will occur. This is a problem for insurance companies, because their premiums are calculated based on the assumption that there is incentive for the owner to keep his house safe.
Getting back to the Talmud, Aumann explains why this is a classic “moral hazard” situation: the person who bought the meat forgot at which store he bought it. But since he was the one who bought it, and he already spent the money, then, consciously or subconsciously, he has an incentive to think that he probably bought it at the kosher store, because then he won’t have to throw it away. This is the essence of the moral hazard: when results of your own actions influence what is supposed to be an independent probability calculation. Some may be able to resist the incentive to cheat, but others may not, so the Talmud takes that into account and removes the incentive.
This is why the Talmud adds the second case: suppose he found the meat. In that case, the choice of which store the meat came from was not in the person’s own hands, so the probability can be computed objectively, and in this case there is a 9/10 (90%) chance that the meat is kosher, so the person can eat it (“go by the majority” means more than 50% probability).
Median Voting (Multiple Appraisers)
One example that is in prof. Aumann’s slides, but not in this particular video (there are many other lectures of his online) is the case of multiple appraisers: if you get 3 appraisals for your house, should you always take the average or the median?
The surprising game-theory answer is given by the Median Voting Theorem: “a majority rule voting system will select the outcome most preferred by the median voter”. The median rule turns out to be the optimal aggregation strategy for single-peaked preferences, as explained by the following video:
Aumann’s English translation and explanation is as follows:
The modern-day explanation is simply that in both cases we select the median, rather than the mean, but the Talmud and commentary bring logical arguments. The latter case is actually the simplest. If one says 100, one says 80 and one says 120, then we pick the average which is 100. But what if two of them agree? In that case, the average leaves the majority unhappy. So, the Talmud adds the first part: if any two of the appraisers agree, then they choose by the majority. This is the same result as would be given by the median voter theorem.
The Three Widows (Consistent Fair Division)
This example is one of prof. Aumann’s most well-known and complicated results. He was the first modern scholar to show that the Talmud’s solution can be explained with modern game-theory.
The problem and the solution are stated in Ketubot 93a (and let’s dodge the issue of how a man can have 3 wives, and why he promises them different inheritances in their ketubot):
“If a man with three wives dies, one has a ketuba of 100 zuz, one of 200, and one of 300, and there is only 100 in the estate, then they divide equally.
If there is 200, then the one of 100 takes 50, and those of 200 and 300, 75 each.
If there is 300, then the one of 100 takes 50, the one of 200 takes 100, and the one of 300 takes 150.”
In the following diagram, the amounts promised to each wife are shown on the top row and the amounts available for inheritance are shown the left column. Each inner cell then shows how much each widow would get in the 3 cases where the deceased left 100, 200 or 300 respectively:
The last case, where the man left over a sum of 300, is to be divided according to the ratios of the promised amounts. This seems obvious. But why is the first case divided equally? And why is the second case divided 50 to the first and then 75 each to the other two? At first glance, this seems inconsistent. Indeed, this has been a mystery for centuries until prof. Aumann provided the mathematical explanation.
You can read prof. Aumann’s paper, which explains why the solution in the Talmud is consistent with game-theory, and watch him explain it in the next video segment:
This week’s Torah portion is Balak, which tells the story of a mythical non-Israelite prophet called Balaam (Bil’aam in Hebrew – בלעם).
The story of Balaam is one of the most baffling portions in the Torah.
First of all, it seems to have no significance to the plot of the Israelite travels in the desert. The story unfolds as a psycho-drama between Balak the king of Moab, and the (Midianite?) prophet-for-hire Balaam Ben Be’or, whom Balak is trying to convince to curse the Israelites. Finally when Balak succeeds, Balaam’s curse comes out as a blessing. In fact, this has become one of the most famous blessings in the Torah and the Liturgy:
מה טובו אהליך יעקב, משכנותיך ישראל How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwellings, Israel
Secondly, the story is about a non-Israelite prophet who actually converses with God. Why would the Biblical editors choose to include such a story, which seems to imply that prophecy is universal?
Thirdly, there is the supernatural story of the talking Donkey that sees visions of angels blocking its way.
For all these reasons, it has been tempting for Biblical scholars to dismiss the story as pure fiction and treat it as a parable. In his book Who Wrote The Bible, Richard Friedman claims that the story of Balaam comes predominantly from the E or Elohist sources, i.e. it’s a folk tale that originated in the Northern tribes of Israel rather than Judah (with the possible exception of the Donkey story, which appears to be a later addition). This view is also supported by some of the imagery in Numbers 23, which features a multiplicity of Altars as was the custom in Northern Israel rather than in Jerusalem-centric Judah.
But this view of Balaam changed in 1967, when archeologists uncovered the Deir Alla inscription, which has been carbon-dated to around 840–760 BCE, and seems to imply that Balaam was indeed a real person. Some epigraphy experts date the writing style of the inscription to a later period around 700 BCE, which would place it after the destruction of Northern Israel, but carbon dating seems to support an earlier timeframe. The location of Deir Alla may be linked to the biblical settlement of Succoth:
The inscription was part of a Temple (most likely Midianite) which was used to worship multiple Gods (Elohim):
The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies describes it as “the oldest example of a book in a West Semitic language written with the alphabet, and the oldest piece of Aramaic literature.” The inscription is written in ancient Hebrew letters, in a language that seems to be a local variation on Aramaic/Canaanite with some Hebrew syntax thrown in. It was painted in red and black inks on fragments of a plastered wall. The heading is in red, as are the passages that Balaam heard from God, and the rest of the inscription is in black ink.
There are 12 sections in the uncovered inscription and not all of them seem to be consecutive. According to Alexander Rofe, the fragments were discovered by a Dutch archeology team which worked in Jordan since 1960. The inscriptions were in bad shape and were painstakingly restored in Jerusalem and Holland over several years. Since 1972, the fragments are on display at the Archeological Museum in Amman Jordan:
The writing of ink on white plaster is suggestive of another Biblical text: Deuteronomy 27:4-5: “Therefore it shall be, when you have crossed over the Jordan, that on Mount Ebal you shall set up these stones, which I command you today, and you shall whitewash them with plater” (שיד or סיד).
Independent of the Deir Alla inscription, Israel Knohl, in his book Ha-Shem, dates Balaam’s main blessing poem (Numbers 24:4-9) to a much later period than the Sinai period. Based on verse 7: “his king shall be raised over Agag, and his kingship exalted”, he thinks this refers to King Saul’s victory over Agag the Amalekite (I Samuel 15:4-8).
On the other hand, Knohl also cites Numbers 24:17 as possibly referring to the fear Israel instilled in Moab, which would more likely date the poem to the time of King Omri. This is much more consistent with the Deir Alla timing, as it dates to the 9th century BCE based on another famous inscription: The Mesha Stele.
The Mesha Stele (also known as the “Moabite Stone”) is a stele (inscribed stone) set up around 840 BCE by King Mesha of Moab (a kingdom located in modern Jordan). Mesha tells how Kemosh, the God of Moab, had been angry with his people and had allowed them to be subjugated to Israel, but at length Kemosh returned and assisted Mesha to throw off the yoke of Israel and restore the lands of Moab. Mesha describes his many building projects.
The Mesha Stele is the longest Iron Age inscription ever found in the region, constitutes the major evidence for the Moabite language, and is a “corner-stone of Semitic epigraphy and Israelite history”.The stele, whose story parallels, with some differences, an episode in the Bible’s Books of Kings (2 Kings 3:4–8), provides invaluable information on the Moabite language and the political relationship between Moab and Israel at one moment in the 9th century BCE. It is the most extensive inscription ever recovered that refers to the kingdom of Israel (the “House of Omri”); it bears the earliest certain extra-biblical reference to the Israelite God Adonai (יהוה), and the earliest mention of the “House of David” (i.e., the kingdom of Judah). It is also one of only four known ancient inscriptions interpreted to mention the term “Israel”, the others being the Merneptah Stele (1200 BCE), the Tel Dan Stele, and the Kurkh Monolith.
The Tel Dan Stele is a broken stele (inscribed stone) discovered in 1993–94 during excavations at Tel Dan in northern Israel. It consists of several fragments making up part of a triumphal inscription in Aramaic, left most probably by Hazael of Aram-Damascus, an important regional figure in the late 9th century BCE. I recently took a photo of the actual Tel Dan Stele while it was on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York:
Back to Balaam. Based on the recent archeological evidence, it seems that Balaam was a real-life well-known priest (Moabite or Midianite) who lived in the 9th century BCE. He was widely believed to be a genuine non-Israelite prophet. Even the Sages acknowledge this in Midrash Bamidbar Rabah 14:20 “There were three features possessed by the prophecy of Balaam that were absent from that of Moses: 1) Moses did not know who was speaking with him, whereas Balaam knew who was speaking with him; 2) Moses did not know when the Holy One Blessed Be He would speak with him, whereas Balaam knew…3) Balaam spoke with Him whenever he pleased…Moses, however, did not speak with Him whenever he wished.”
Based on the Balaam inscription, his prophesies were mostly morbid apocalyptic imagery, like this excerpt: “..sew the skies shut with your thick cloud! There let there be darkness and no (7) perpetual shining and n[o] radiance! For you will put a sea[l upon the thick] cloud of darkness and you will not remove it forever! For the swift has (8) reproached the eagle, the voice of vultures resounds”.
In summary, all the evidence seems to support the theory that the real historical Balaam was a well known religious figure in the ancient Near East around the 8-9 century BCE. He had a wide reputation for delivering morbid prophesies and curses and was a high priest in his own temple. Assuming that the Biblical editors knew all this, and knew that their readers knew it as well, it becomes more obvious why they felt inclined to include the story of Balaam’s blessings to Israel in so much detail in the Balakportion. The story is also mentioned in Numbers 31:8,16 (where Balaam is killed in battle), Deutoronomy 23:5-6, in the book of Micah 6:5 (the Haftara for Balak), as well as in Joshua 13:22 and Nehemiah 13:2.